A Memorial Field

While in Berlin recently, I had occasion to visit the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and Information Centre.” Initiated by Leah Rosh and Eberhard Jäckel, this work was designed and built as the “Holocaust memorial for Germany.” It is composed of a series of stelae of varying heights on a field of hills, with the consequence being that you do not know from afar whether a seemingly tall stele is near or far from the ground.


It is hard to describe the feel of the monument. At the edge of it, people mill about, sitting on stelae eating snacks, visiting, arguing, and doing all the things people do in a park. But as soon as someone stands on one of the stelae, a security guard summons them down again.

Eventually I made my way to the middle of the field. Here, the columns were quite tall. People who were laughing and joking on the edges became a bit more taciturn here. It was a bit eerie, but even more off-setting was hearing the crying of children who invariably became disconnected from their parents. One child had crashed into a corner of one of the stelae and was inconsolable. Knowing the occasion for the memorial simply set me on edge.

Underground, beneath the memorial, is an information centre, which requires a security check. No one said a word after making it through the checkpoint, reading bits of history, fragments from letters, stories of families etc. The material was not unknown to me but I read it a bit differently after wandering through the stelae. It seems that the field set me askew, so that facts I knew before bore a new and more ponderous weight.

To say that the memorial is “effective” is to do it a grand disservice. Such language seems too utilitarian, and presumes a goal that is achieved: an item to be checked off of the “to do” list. No, this memorial is not done. It is still churning in me: stelae talking to my soul and silence waking me. I will be sitting with this one for a time, mindful that some lessons are not meant only to be learned but but to be lived resolutely – day in and day out.

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Cracks that let…

Friends, late this afternoon there was an Art and Vespers Service at Keffer Chapel. The theme of the event was “The Crack That Lets the Light Get In.” I was asked to provide a short reflection on the theme, which follows. Blessings to you in the cracks in your days. Allen

Leonard Cohen invites us to think mystically about the crack, the lack, the imperfection that marks and mars our journey from cradle to grave:

“Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

These are beautiful words, words that sound the world round; words of hope that play especially well in these days; these days of cracks becoming chasms, and bridges being drawn, and barb-wired walls being scratched across continents and around the world. These words of the prophetic poet Cohen sing the promise of light, the light of God promised by the poetic prophet Paul who hymned

“For it is the God who said, ‘let light shine in the darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

This light, says Paul, is the light of the knowledge of God; he tells us that Christians see this light in the face of Jesus, our brother; others speak of seeing this light in other faces, other places but all of us who long for light find it coming in through the cracks that the world hammers in our souls. Cohen invites us to see these cracks – as painful as they may be, as embarrassing as they are, as disturbing as they will be – he calls us to call these cracks differently, to call them portals of grace.

I love Cohen’s poem. I love the way it lets the light in, and I ache for light in these days that are altogether too dark. Into your apocalypse and mine the light comes:

Deep in our hearts, there is a common glowing
Deep in our hearts, God’s hope is burning bright
Deep in our hearts, shalom is surging, growing
Dispersing hatred with God’s sacred light.

Paul speaks of this treasured light lyrically saying “we have this treasure in clay jars,” this light abides in precarious, in precious, in fragile souls… The light that shines in our hearts is held in clay heart jars, jars that are

Afflicted, but not crushed
Perplexed but not despairing
Persecuted but not abandoned
Struck down but never knocked out.

Paul claims that we carry in this weak, in this broken, in this fundamentally flawed physical form the light of resurrecting love. The light that has come in through the cracks will also glow out through these same cracks as we walk into the darkness, into the confusion, into the abyss about us. Light shines out from our battered and broken bodies; hope shines out from our hearts, cleft and bereft; faith shines out from our sorrowing souls that swell and soar with love despite empirical orders to the contrary.

Friends, I close with a poem…

A light from the crack slips
Across my eye, so that now I
See sideways – Now I view the
World askew; now I hear the world anew.
Trees converse with me, and I with them as
They teach me to listen, train me to see:
Ears to bark, eyes on crown, my
Being breathing in their
Breathing out – and the world
Bursts open. It receives me as
I fall into holy palms, as I slide
Into God’s weeping wounds, the
Cracks that let the light shine in; the
Cracks that let God’s love shine out.

In the Palm of my Heart

With this first fall of
Snow, I felt You
In the spaces
Between these feathery
Fingered flakes:
No two alike
Each sketching another

Contour of you;

Each etching You into

Me, melting

In the palm of my heart.

You are Between.
You are Before and Behind.
You are Below and Above.
And when the cold comes
I cannot but be – by
Grace – as crystal,
As liquid iced
Like lace.

Arboreal Lessons

Our tree is not ours, but it
allows us to imagine it
so. It has much to
teach us, each
fall shedding
its skin,

leaving a leaf on step,

which when wet plays

the mirror and so

allows me to see my eyes

on its veins. It minds me.

This tree, with its leaf, speaks to me of creation and its end.

It knows intimately
the wager of letting
go: falling from
branch’s security.

It knows of farewells
and weeping
and the beauty of
ochred red against verdant grace.

It knows that this blue
globe we call home is
ocular: God’s seeing us.

Penned Again

No sleep in this pen so
it calls me again,
late in the night.
I cannot but do its
bidding as it scratches
me across this page.  No
sleep now – with me
strewn blue across white – not
quite bruised but certainly
bent into shape
of poetry.

 

I am ink.
I am lettered.
I am poem,
the page now my home
until I am virtually
transfigured and
become the
sighting of your eye, the
curving of your tongue,
an echo
in your ear.

A Little Empathy

It has been a hard week in the news for Canadians, Albertans and especially residents of Fort McMurray. The forest fire in this northern Alberta town of 90, 000+ has brought untold devastation to a community already suffering a downturn in the economy. The fire is reminiscent of that experienced in Slave Lake five years back and unsurprisingly comparisons are made.

I lived in both cities some years ago: Fort McMurray in the early eighties and Slave Lake in the early nineties. Both were youthful cities, with young and somewhat transient populations. People from across Canada, and indeed the world, came to both centres looking to make a start in their careers. That was certainly the case for me, and so I know a little of their context.

Canadians are looking at Fort McMurray in a new light. It has long been loved and hated for its economy based on the tar sands and bitumen extraction. But even those who have loathed the city for its ties to what has been called “dirty oil” have newly found sympathy, and perhaps even empathy for its residents. I have been thinking about empathy as of late, mindful that many think that the condition for its possibility is a willingness to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and so in the present case to imagine fleeing house and home with a carful, or less, of hastily grabbed items. But I cannot imagine what this horror is. It simply is beyond the pale of my experience, but I don’t think that this precludes my being empathetic.

Empathy, it seems to me, is not so much about putting myself in the shoes of others, as recognizing that I cannot do this. I cannot pretend to know what others go through and so when I am truly empathetic my first job is to listen: to quiet my need to know, and to let my not-knowing still my tongue and open my ears. A friend from my Slave Lake days wrote a blog of what not to say to the people awaiting news of the state of their property and life in Fort McMurray (you can read it here, just scroll down a little). It holds wise counsel, and invites us all to remember that ours is a tenuous existence.

We are called to walk lightly on this earth and to pray strenuously, seeking from the Creator wisdom for each day, peace among peoples, and healing for the earth. Empathy pours forth in such prayer, I think, and demands from us first a presence that does not pretend to know the answers before we are even aware of the questions.

In the news reports from Fort McMurray and the locales its residents now inhabit, they express anxiety and fear, but also a resilience that envisions their community rising Phoenix-like in the future. I have no doubt that it will, as Slave Lake has done and continues to do. We are all more than we first imagine, and we are a deep gift to each other as we open ourselves to receiving the experiences of others empathetically.

5 O’clock Dark

Heading home, Friday last,
I passed the Salvation Army and
the street lamps did me the honour
of multiplying my shadow leaving me
variously iterated in black:
here short and squat, like a puddle at feet
there long, lean and sliding across the street
but ahead just right, properly proportioned
and cutting a sweet angle a little left of centre,
slightly smug until an ambulance navigating the traffic
rendered me red on Sally Ann’s wall –
each shadow dancing a life under
the aegis of an emergency’s brief
incursion – after which I stepped
off the curb and slipped across
the street into a stretch
of easy dark.